An essentially theological problem requires a theological solution.
Pro-abortion rights protesters block Christopher “Fidelis” Moscinski, a pro-life member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, from walking in downtown Manhattan on November 5, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, Joshua Mitchell, Encounter Books, 312 pages.
It has been almost three years since a political-cultural revolution swept through the commanding heights of American life, including but not limited to institutions of higher education. Of course, this revolution, which some call “wokeness,” was a long time coming and is still playing out all around us. The most compelling book-length analysis of the phenomenon continues to be American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, by Professor Joshua Mitchell, a respected scholar of political theory at Georgetown University.
American Awakening was published in the midst of this upheaval, in 2020. Since Mitchell completed writing his manuscript in May of that year, he did not initially have a chance to reflect on the full extent of the ongoing revolution. In that respect his book resembled Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, even more convincing as prophecy than as contemporary assessment. Like Burke two hundred and thirty years earlier, Mitchell in the spring of 2020 hadn’t seen the worst of it yet. Thus, I was happy to see the book re-released in a fresh edition a few weeks ago with an extensive new preface updating its central argument in light of the last few years. Reading it, I was not disappointed.
Mitchell’s core thesis is that elite observers across the ideological spectrum usually misunderstand the profound appeal of left-wing identity politics, along with its grave dangers, because they have little feeling for religion and its substitutes. Christianity, especially in its 16th-century Reformed Protestant version, posited that all human beings are sinful without exception, but that the stain of this transgression can be removed through Christ. As Paul says in the Epistle to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
By contrast, Mitchell says that twenty-first century progressives believe in a kind of hierarchy of human sin and transgression based upon a series of group dichotomies: male versus female, white versus non-white, straight versus gay, Western versus non-Western, and so on. In each pairing, the latter group is the historical victim, and the former group the victimizer. Sin or guilt, like innocence, is therefore assigned by group. For oppressor groups, sin cannot be washed away, other than by apologetics that never end. For oppressed groups, there is no guilt or transgression in the first place, only the innocence of victimhood.
As Mitchell notes, identity politics removes the traditional religious scapegoat and finds a new one. In the older understanding, the sacrifice of the guiltless Christ—the one true innocent—is needed because all human beings are irredeemably sinful. In the newer progressive understanding, some groups are sinful, and some are not. This unleashes a new form of political activism. To be specific, it encourages a form of politics that is collectivist, utopian, and revolutionary—really an ersatz religion. We have seen their kind before. It does not end well.
The French revolutionaries, as Mitchell suggests in his book, were a classic example of this type of utopian politics. Edmund Burke wrote in 1790 that “their abstract perfection is their practical defect.” Mocking them as political-intellectual “aeronauts,” he advised: “Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build in a hundred years.” Burke warned that efforts to overthrow the ancient regime would lead to destructive unintended consequences on a scale that well-meaning reformers could barely imagine. He was right. Within the next four years, the king was beheaded, the revolution radicalized, and a reign of terror spread over France as Robespierre and the Jacobins centralized power. They proceeded to wage war on the Christian religion.
Thankfully, our homegrown American Jacobins have not yet erected guillotines in public squares. They have, however, attempted to transform this nation’s ancien regime—that is, its founding principles—with astonishing speed. As Mitchell wrote in the first version of his book, and discusses at further length in the new edition, progressive control freaks took advantage of a global pandemic to institute shutdown regulations so widespread, protracted, and intrusive that American civil society, most notably powerless children, may take decades to recover. Many public schools, shops, and churches were effectively, forcibly, absurdly shut down for years. Local church pastors confirm that if the U.S. government had deliberately looked to undermine Christian worship, it could hardly have been more effective. Then in May and June 2020, after Mitchell had already written the first edition of his book, the death of George Floyd was used as an excuse for sweeping reconsiderations of U.S. criminal, judicial, corporate, historical, and educational practices.
It should be clear that the events of May and June 2020 were an impressive vindication of Joshua’s Mitchell central thesis on the shocking power of ersatz religion. In keeping with the Jacobin model, the “mostly peaceful” George Floyd protests resulted in death or injury to dozens of U.S. citizens, the illegal destruction of a good many prominent statues and public monuments, widespread mob violence, and over a billion dollars in property damage. Within a matter of days, leading members of America’s political, educational, journalistic, entertainment, and corporate establishment—with some honorable exceptions—took the knee, as it were, and informed the rest of us that a vast overhaul of existing U.S. institutions was in order. I have not noticed any three-year congressional or journalistic investigation into the causes and consequences of all those stunning events. On the contrary, we are assured that the whole thing was largely benign.
If Americans had simply been asked, “do you approve of the new woke revolution?” I am confident that a solid majority of U.S. citizens would have said: “No.” But as is often the case with revolutionaries, Democratic Party progressives in 2020 were able to piggyback their radical agenda onto the shoulders of a more conventional critique. They successfully changed the question from whether an electoral majority opposed the new woke dispensation to whether a similarly overwhelming majority supported the incumbent president. On that basis, Biden won. The pattern continues right up to the present. Whenever called out on their own left-wing mania, progressives have a two-word answer to change the subject: “But Trump!” In this way, and in one of the great non sequiturs of American history, the personal existence of the 45th president has been used as an ultimate excuse for the mad cultural revolution that now surrounds you like a panopticon.
So, what is to be done? Mitchell’s answer in American Awakening is the observation that an essentially theological problem requires a theological solution. If the destructive ersatz religion of left-wing identity politics rests on a mistaken premise of all-encompassing group innocence versus group guilt—as it obviously does—then the answer is to recover that older spiritual awareness and humility that all human beings are flawed sinners as individuals. Here, Mitchell is in the best tradition of leading 20th-century conservative philosophers, who understood that the ideological authoritarian movements of that era could not only be stopped by political method; they also had to be confronted through a deeper understanding of their spiritual roots.
As an aside, Mitchell mentions that virtually every university press publisher he approached rejected his manuscript. I believe he has published four previous university press books in political theory from Princeton to Chicago, but clearly this last manuscript was too openly critical of the latest left-wing orthodoxies. It is certainly ridiculous, but unfortunately not surprising, that so many would-be intellectual gatekeepers in this country now feel the need to filter out first-rate publications like this one if they challenge woke dogma. Much credit is therefore due to the book’s publisher, Encounter Books, for making American Awakening available to discerning readers.
American Awakening is a remarkable achievement. Mitchell has successfully diagnosed the pseudo-religious deformation at the heart of our current discontents, along with one possible cure. Having said that, the problem in the meantime is these woke fanatics seem to have the run of the place, and they do not appear inclined toward humility, whether in its revived Christian version or any other. This brings us back to Edmund Burke. American conservatives of nearly every type have long revered him, for good reason. However, his warnings regarding transformative change are often used against undoing the latest left-wing innovation. In fact, this has always been the argument of Democratic Party progressives. First, they institute sweeping reforms in a left-wing direction. Then, they insist that to question those radical changes is needlessly disruptive. Heads they win, tails you lose.
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For any conservatives who still feel the need to defer to today’s politically correct revolution, I urge them to reread Burke’s Reflections along with his 1796 Letters on a Regicide Peace. Burke is angry, and justifiably so. He is angry at the sheer fanaticism, intolerance, and destruction wreaked by contemporary revolutionaries. He is angry at “men of letters,” who provide excuses for it. He is angry at so-called political “moderates”—his own words—who weakly accommodate this destruction and allow it to continue. He correctly identifies French Jacobin militants as that country’s newfangled elite. As he puts it in the Letters:
When private men form themselves into associations for the purpose of destroying the preexisting laws and institutions of their country…massacring by judgments, or otherwise, those who make any struggle for their old legal government, and their legal, hereditary, or acquired possessions – I call this Jacobinism by establishment.
To be sure, Burke offers thoughtful, prudent warnings against radical social or political displacement. That is exactly why he refuses to take the revolutionaries’ continued success as a given. He understands that either the revolution will fail, or traditional Western liberties will falter. And he will do everything he can, big or small, to prevent the latter. Reconsider him first-hand. Ask yourself how he would tackle today’s woke fanatics. His recommended strategy is rollback, not appeasement. In short, Burke is a counterrevolutionary of an unusually fearless kind.